The Use of Reproductions and Replicas in Museums – A Critique

How do you feel about the use of replicas in museums? Is it a necessary evil when the original artifacts aren’t available? Or should there be specific rules to determine when museums can use replicas and when they can’t?

You probably never gave it much thought. After all, the traditional role of museums has been to collect, display and preserve objects of interest, rarity or other perceived value – be it cultural, historical, artistic, or monetary. It probably never crossed your mind that some of the objects you’ve seen in a museum weren’t the original, but a replica or reproduction. Especially if this fact isn’t clearly disclosed on the label.

I never used to question the use of replicas in museums either – that is, until very recently.

What changed, you ask? Well, visiting some museums on our recent travels gave me major déjà vu – and the experience had me rethink everything I thought I knew about museums and the objects in their collections.

Before we get into this examination of the use of replicas in museums, I want to be clear – I don’t take issue with museums using replicas in some instances. For example, I believe replicas should be used if the original artifact is fragile or in poor condition, and displaying it may cause further damage. But at what point are replicas used as a crutch when the original artifacts aren’t available to display? Can a museum still call itself a museum if it’s full of replicas?

First, let’s start with a small lesson in terminology.

Provenance refers to the origin of an object, or earliest known history of that object.

Replicas vs. reproductions – are they the same thing? Well no, not in the strictest sense.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a replica is an exact duplicate of the original, right down to its finest details. A replica may also be in a different scale, such as miniature replicas of cars or sculptures. (In which case, it really isn’t an exact duplicate, is it? But I’m just splitting hairs.)

A reproduction is a copy which resembles the original, but may have slight variations. They’re still difficult, or even impossible to discern from the real thing, especially by the average person lacking expertise in that artifact.

For the most part, it seems many museums prefer to use the term replica when they’ve created a duplicate object of an original artifact intended for their exhibits. They use the words copy or reproduction more often for objects that someone else has commissioned, and that they’ve acquired from an individual or private collection, etc.

For this argument, I’ll stick with “replica” if it was specifically created for a museum exhibit, and “reproduction” for those objects created for a private collector and later acquired by a museum. The terms may often be used interchangeably, however.

If the difference between a replica and a reproduction (or copy) is still confusing, example #1 should help:

Example #1 – The Laocoön and His Sons

The Laocoön is easily one of my favourite sculptures. The original marble sculpture was excavated in Rome in 1506, and it’s been on display at the Vatican ever since. It’s exact date of creation isn’t known, but it’s been estimated at somewhere between 27 BC and 68 AD.

Laocoön sculpture at the Vatican

At the time we visited Rome, the interpretive plaque in front of the sculpture wasn’t very informative. It only depicted the sculpture as it looked when it was restored in the 16th Century. I honestly didn’t even realize it was the original when we saw it! I guess they saw no reason to point out the fact that it was the original. It only matters in cases when it’s not.

plaque of the Laocoön sculpture at the Vatican

The Laocoön sculpture below sits in the inner courtyard of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The plaque behind this piece clearly states its date of creation at c.1699. It also states that it is a copy, cast in Rome for a wealthy Dutch merchant to put in his garden.

Since it was created after the 16th Century restoration, but before the 1957 restoration that undid some of the interesting design choices, it follows the styling in the photo above, with their arms reattached. Even so, it’s still not identical to the original – the placement of the hands are different, for example. Also, the snake’s body is behind the Laocoön’s leg, but in the original marble sculpture, the snake is wrapped around his leg. So this would be considered a copy, or reproduction rather than a replica.

Laocoon copy at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The interpretive signage at the Rijksmuseum is an example of clear, transparent disclosure. It identifies the origin of the original sculpture, the fact that this is a copy, its creation date, and who commissioned it.

To be fair, there are numerous copies of the Laocoön in museums around the world due to its infamy and importance. The Royal Academy of Arts in London, for example, has a plaster version – but again, it clearly identifies where the original resides, the materials it’s made from, and when they acquired the plaster version (given by The Prince Regent in 1816).

You can also find copies at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Princeton University Art Museum, and so on. But again, these museums clearly explain the manufacture dates, materials, provenance, acquisition dates, etc. They’re on display, not as replicas of the original, but because these museums acquired them from private collections. They also speak somewhat to the time periods in which they were created, the people (usually very wealthy people, obviously) who commissioned them, and the skills of the artists hired to copy them.

To make this example a little more convoluted, the ancient Romans loved to copy Greek works of art. In fact, some experts believe that the original Laocoön at the Vatican is, in fact a copy of a Greek piece. So, even the “original” may be a reproduction!

Example #2 – Billy the Kid’s Gravestone

I think my first exposure to museum replicas (that I know of) was during a visit to the United States 30+ years ago. Thanks to the Young Guns movie franchise, I was obsessed with learning more about Billy the Kid. A few years after the movies hit the theaters, my parents and I took a road trip through New Mexico. I, of course, begged them to stop at the Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner.

The museum had many authentic Billy the Kid-related artifacts on display, including one of his rifles and his spurs. Pretty cool collection actually, for something that is basically a roadside museum.

But, not all of the items on display were the real deal. The museum had several tombstones in a fenced off area outside, including one for Billy the Kid. But the signage clearly disclosed that these tombstones were replicas of the originals.

Billy the Kid replica tombstone sign

Even above the tombstone, the museum posted signs that this was not, in fact, the original. I thought their transparency was commendable, especially for being a small, privately owned museum. But, having a replica only two miles from Billy the Kid’s actual grave seemed unnecessary. It would make more sense if he’d died in another part of the country, or the site was lost or unaccessible. But his actual grave wasn’t far away, and was even free to visit. Having a replica gravestone at the museum may have rounded out the story of Billy the Kid from beginning to end, but also seemed….sensationalistic. But perhaps that fits the narrative of these roadside attractions.

Billy the Kid replica tombstone, Billy the Kid Museum

Example #3 – The Dancing Faun statue

The Dancing Faun in Pompeii is one example of a replica done right. You can find this little bronze statue at the House of the Faun. (This is personally one of my all-time favourite sculptures, next to the Laocoön.) This gorgeous sculpture was uncovered during excavations in 1830.

Dancing Faun in Pompeii

Dancing Faun statue

But this little guy isn’t the original statue: it’s a replica.

I don’t recall whether there was a plaque or label regarding the faun or it’s status as a replica. But our tour guide was very clear on this fact, telling us that the original is on display at the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

In this case, it makes sense that the true statue is kept in a safe place, out of the elements and away from possible vandalism or theft. Still, this replica provides the same visual impact as the original statue would, because it’s placed in the same spot that one would have seen the original.

So, fast forward a few years, when my husband and I visited some museums in Australia. Imagine my surprise when we came across this fellow. Look familiar?

dancing faun, c. 1899, Brisbane

The plaque underneath the statue is a bit hard to read as I didn’t capture it head-on in my photograph. But it just says, “after Unknown Roman. Roman Empire late 1st century BC. Dancing faun 19th century Bronze, Acquired 1899.”

I feel like the wording here is unclear for the average reader. If you weren’t familiar with the Dancing Faun or its history, would you recognize this as a reproduction? Perhaps one is expected to make that assumption with the two dates indicated. But the plaque doesn’t even acknowledge the Pompeii connection in the description, which I found a bit disappointing. Also, the museum “acquired” this sculpture in 1899 – but from whom?

Plaque under Dancing Faun replica, Brisbane

Well, there may be an answer to that question – but I had to go hunting for it.

In 1860, the National Archaeological Museum at Naples put artifacts from Pompeii on display. They also granted permits for institutions and individuals to make molds from some of the artifacts, including the faun. This resulted in reproductions being made, which were typically reduced in scale from the original. So, this could be a copy taken from those original molds created in 1860, but the plaque doesn’t confirm or deny this possibility. It’s rather too bad, because I think if this is the case, the backstory to this replica could be quite interesting for visitors to know.

As a side note, universities such as the University of Cambridge and Cornell University (and others) also have casts of the original Dancing Faun statue – and they fully disclose this information on their websites.

Example #4 – The Skeleton of Lucy

The National Archaeological Museum in Madrid in particular seems to have a lot of replicas on display. Perhaps too many?

For example, as part of their prehistory exhibit, they have the skeleton of Lucy on display. Lucy is famous for being considered the oldest possible ancestor for every hominin species currently known.

Lucy skeleton replica in Madrid

My husband Mark and I were fascinated by the fact that a museum in Madrid had Lucy’s skeleton on display – especially considering that the skeleton was found in Africa. That is, until we read the description on the glass case.

plaque on Lucy replica in museum in Madrid

This skeleton we were admiring in Madrid was not, in fact, the real Lucy, but a replica. The original Lucy skeleton resides at the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. (Other museums around the world – namely the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and The Field Museum in Chicago, among others, also have replicas of Lucy.)

While Lucy marked a great moment of discovery in the timeline of ancient human history, I don’t know if this replica was necessary for their exhibit. We’ve been to many other museums that covered prehistory without having a replica of Lucy in their collection, and they were just as informative and engaging.

On the other hand, we’ll probably never see the real Lucy in person. So this exhibit had me a bit torn. Was it interesting to see close up, as a missing link in the timeline of early human history? Absolutely. But I also felt disappointment that I was looking at something that wasn’t real. I would have preferred not to have seen it at all. Incorporating the story of Lucy’s find as part of an audio-visual presentation would have been better.

Example #5 – Turkana Boy

To make matters worse, they also had Turkana Boy on display. He’s a valuable link in the human timeline because he’s the most complete skeleton of Homo ergaster ever found (c. 1.5 to 1.6 million years ago). But look at the interpretive sign on his display compared to that of Lucy. Notice anything missing?

Turkana Boy plaque replicas in museums

They failed to include “replica” in the description! Turkana Boy – the real one – is on display at the Nairobi National Museum. Was this an innocent mistake, or an attempt to mislead the visitor?

Example #6 – Treasure of El Carambolo

So, further into our visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, this particular exhibit caught my attention. It stopped me in my tracks for two reasons – one, because the pieces are so unusual. But also, we’d just come from spending a few days in Seville, where we saw these identical pieces at the Archaeological Museum of Seville. What were the chances there were two identical hoards?

Treasure of El Carambolo replica

Well, the chances were zero, Again, this display of the Treasure of El Carambolo was a replica.

close up of plaque on Carambolo hoard replica

The original gold hoard was discovered in El Carambolo hill, 3km from Seville in 1958. Interestingly, the Archaeological Museum of Seville kept a replica of the hoard on display until 2012, and kept the original pieces locked in a safe. Since then, they’ve put the original pieces on public display. The replicas on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid appear to be those same replicas that the Archaeological Museum of Seville once used for their exhibit.

Again, this display probably wasn’t necessary here. I didn’t think it added anything to their collection, and seeing these replicas made me start to question whether anything I was seeing was real or fake.

The museum also has an outdoor exhibit – a replica of the Altamira Cave in Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Spain. They’ve clearly marked the exhibit as a replica, which depicts prehistoric cave art. But I think this pop-up cave in the middle of Madrid would definitely spark questions if it wasn’t transparently labeled as a replica!

So, what do you think about the use of replicas in museums? Is it acceptable for museums to use replicas as a tool for education purposes? I believe it is to some extent, as that is one of their main functions. Replicas can be very useful as a teaching tool when the original artifact isn’t readily available, or is too fragile for handling and exhibiting. But it can also be a slippery slope of relying too heavily on copies to tell a story. Replicas, I think, should be used as little as possible, or serve a specific function with good justifications for doing so. I also strongly believe that all replicas should be labeled clearly in order for museums to maintain professionalism and transparency.

I think every museum around the world is unique and interesting. But if they all started displaying the same replicas over and over, wouldn’t that water down their uniqueness and originality? Where does one draw the line between museums being stewards of protecting, restoring and displaying original artifacts, and being storytellers and educators of human history?

To read more on the topic of whether museums do enough to label real vs. copied objects, there’s a good article here from the Washington Post.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Are museums transparent enough with their replicas and reproductions? Let me know in the comments!

4 Replies to “The Use of Reproductions and Replicas in Museums – A Critique”

  1. Darlene Post author

    Hi John, I agree – in some cases it makes a lot of sense to use a replica, especially if the original item is too fragile to display, or is on loan to another museum, for example. But some museums seem to overuse them which calls their integrity into question a bit.

  2. John Quinn

    Darlene this is great. I’m torn on how I feel about this. I think in some cases it’s necessary like the faun. But in others it feels a little unscrupulous, as if a way to mislead, and portray themselves in a better light. More often that not it seems to be the latter though.

  3. Darlene Post author

    I think the use of replicas is much more prevalent than we realize. And in some cases it’s definitely justified, but I think museums shouldn’t rely on them as heavily as some seem to.

  4. Lannie Travels

    Interesting that you would think of replicas in a museum. I never really thought so much of of it. But also, it’s interesting that replicas are so wide spread! I’ll have to think about it next time I visit a museum!

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